Sigrid MacDonald
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Finding Lisa

April 2004
Ottawa, Ontario

magine discovering that your husband is a bigamist," I exclaimed, as Lisa and I donned our jackets to leave the ByTowne Theatre.
“I'd kill him," Lisa retorted, as she put on her headband to brace the frigid wind.
“You'd have to stand in line!" I replied, as we forced our way through the large crowd that was waiting for the second feature.
The ByTowne was an old theatre with a widescreen, plush red velvet curtains, and hard, uncomfortable seats, which were so low that I felt that I was leaning back in a 1980s Corvette, waiting for takeoff. But the movie house specialized in foreign films. As a result, it attracted a faithful cult audience.
We had just seen My Architect, a docudrama produced by Nathaniel Kahn, son of the late Louis I. Kahn. The senior Kahn was a well-renowned architect from Philadelphia. He designed a number of impressive buildings including the town center in Bangladesh and the beautiful Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. The movie depicted the son's search for the father that he had never known.
At his funeral, colleagues were shocked to learn that Louis Kahn had not one but three wives simultaneously. He had fathered three children with different women and only saw

young Nathaniel when he could sneak away from his official family. Nathaniel’s longing for his father was captured perfectly in one breathtaking scene where he rollerbladed through the vast and empty courtyard of one of his father's buildings overlooking the Pacific.
An older woman with long unkempt hair was standing in front of the movie house. She looked weathered and carried a tin cup.
“And you call yourselves Canadians!" the woman shouted when people passed by without giving her money. I dropped a coin in her cup, and she gave me a weary, toothless grin.
Lisa stopped to light a cigarette in front of a store called All Books. She leaned on a table. It was overflowing with used books with campy titles like Soul Centred Astrology and Killing Rage.
Lisa's match kept going out, thanks to the steady stream of snow that was falling. It was early April. This was probably the last snowfall of the season. Two men ahead of us were discussing the film.
"I really liked the play on words," the younger man said. "I mean, I. Kahn. Icon! Do you think that his fate was sealed by his name?"
"Oh, absolutely," his friend replied. "Look at all the children named Jesus in Venezuela. See the way they're prospering?"
"Maybe they'll get their reward in the next life," the first speaker declared.
Lisa and I laughed. "Want to go to Nate's?" I asked. We invariably went to Nate's Deli for a snack after our monthly excursions at the ByTowne. It was hard to say which we enjoyed more, the food at Nate's or analyzing the movies.
Occasionally, we’d vary our routine and walk down to Tucker’s Marketplace, a restaurant in the ByWard Market, which had an immense buffet. But tonight, the roads were slick with freezing rain, and the wind was gusting at thirty kilometers an hour, so I didn't feel much like hiking all the way down to Mother Tucker’s.
Lisa nodded in agreement. "Follow me," she instructed, as she grabbed my arm and ran across the busy avenue.
"Lisa!" I screamed, to no avail. She was an incorrigible jaywalker whereas I always dutifully crossed at the corner.
Rideau Street was dark except for the flashing lights above the theatre. About one kilometer west of the ByTowne, Rideau became Wellington Street, which housed the Supreme Court, the elegant Fairmont Château Laurier Hotel, and the Parliament buildings.
The center block of the Houses of Parliament was destroyed in a fire in 1916. All the Houses had been rebuilt using a Civil Gothic design except for the library. The buildings were warm and ornate with gargoyles, stained-glass windows, and an ornamental fence. Parliament Hill stood on the south bank of the Rideau River just below the swirling waters that explorer Samuel de Champlain had called La Chaudière, meaning "The Cauldron."
The Hill and Confederation Square were impressive and were often displayed on postcards for tourists. This end of the road was old and run-down in comparison.
Lisa and I opened the door to 316 Rideau Street and walked up the short ramp. The smell of fresh bagels and cheese blintzes was tantalizing.
Nate’s Deli was famous for its smoked meat sandwiches. The atmosphere was homey and somewhat schizophrenic. Clearly, the store had been an old-fashioned delicatessen years ago, but a modern annex had been added to convert the deli into a restaurant.
We passed mouth-watering displays of candy, juice, gourmet salads, and cooked meat. A waitress with honey-colored hair, tied up in a bun, seated us at the back in a booth. One wall of the restaurant was covered in glass mirrors. Next to it was a large poster that said, "You don't have to be Jewish," which made me smile.
We took off our coats, and I brushed the wet snow from my forehead. Lisa's dark brown hair gleamed under the yellow lights. She was wearing a tight pink sweater, which showed off her cleavage, snug Guess jeans, and a delicate gold cross. I felt dowdy in my sweatshirt and baggy Mom jeans.
Although we had been best friends since our late teens, I was always struck by Lisa’s stark and simple beauty. She was everything that I was not: tall, angular, and shamefully thin with a spontaneous, impulsive, and charismatic personality. Her life was full of drama, even though she’d been sober for five years, and worked full time as a drug and alcohol counselor at a small agency downtown called "Straight and Narrow."
I, on the other hand, was imminently predictable. I worked as a nurse in the short-term rehabilitation unit of a local hospital. I’d been married to Mark, a professor of cultural anthropology, for fifteen years, which barely legitimized our fourteen-year-old son Devon.
The words that were most often used to describe me were dependable, loyal, and hard-working—polite euphemisms for boring. In the past, I had taken pride in those descriptions, but recently, I’d been feeling dull and disenchanted with my life. I was approaching forty. Just thinking those words sent a shiver down my spine.
Turning forty sounded as appealing as being a prisoner in Abu Ghraib. Dead Woman Walking, I mused to myself. I was already sprouting gray hairs and had been making frequent trips to my hairdresser, Chan Juan, to have her color my hair darker. My hair was an odd shade of henna at the moment, but I couldn't change it since I had colored it four times in the last two months. It now had the texture of a Brillo pad, and toxic metals were probably seeping into my already imbalanced system.
I had heard the argument that forty was the new thirty, but I suspected that the phrase had been invented by someone in her fifties. If I were lucky enough to live until eighty that would mean I was already halfway through my life. What had I done with it? Where was I headed? I could be hit by a bus or develop breast cancer, like my mother, who died when I was ten.
Every day at work, I saw people whose lives had been derailed by accidents and illness. Maybe I only had ten or twenty years left. What was I going to do with them? The faster I approached the big 4-0, the more I envied Lisa her relative freedom.
Lisa had never gotten married. She’d had a succession of boyfriends. "Cereal" monogamy, she joked. "They stay for breakfast. Then I kick them out in the morning." Her tone was flippant, but I knew that Lisa wanted stability in a relationship as much as anyone else.
When she was doing cocaine, that was impossible. She was involved with one loser after another including men who ended up in jail, disappeared for days at a time, and stole money from her. One even slept with her cousin.
After she began her recovery, Lisa went through a long period of voluntary celibacy to reflect on the qualities she wanted in a mate.
Eighteen months ago, she met Ryan at a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. He seemed like a bad bet to me. At thirty-six, Ryan had been clean for three years and attended meetings regularly.
According to Lisa, some people go to AA but don't actually work the steps, which involve taking one’s own inventory and making amends to those one has wronged. Consequently, the half-hearted members don’t have good sobriety.
Ryan was different. He devoted himself to the program, completing one step after another and volunteering to help other tortured souls who were still drinking. However, he had a history of physical abuse. Ryan's last girlfriend left him after calling the police several times during their domestic disputes.
I had cautioned Lisa about Ryan's propensity for violence, but she believed in him. Her whole life revolved around addiction and the program. To have doubted Ryan would have been tantamount to questioning her entire career, as well as her own recovery.
She was like a televangelist since she’d joined AA. Of course, I’d never say that to her face. Obviously, I preferred her clean and sober to drinking and snorting white powder, but I didn't understand her need for AA after all these years.
We were both partyers back in our university days, but for some inexplicable reason, Lisa crossed a line in her drinking. Alcohol became something that she had to have, and it changed her personality. Her grades went down the drain, and she was often evicted from bars for being too boisterous, but the next day she’d have no recollection of what she had done.
After Lisa realized that she had a problem, she went to the Addiction Research Centre in Toronto. She received outpatient counseling at ARC, and they encouraged her to go to daily meetings.
One night, Lisa brought home a quiz and waved it in my face. "Look!" she said. "Here's one test I passed with flying colors. It says I'm in stage two alcoholism. Scary! Stage three means I'm ready for the asylum. People lose jobs, marriages, and become institutionalized at that point."
I grabbed the quiz and studied it with interest. I decided to take it myself. Lisa had no objections, but she was surprised when I scored high enough to qualify for stage one alcoholism.
"Oh my God, Tara. You need to get into the program!"
I had no intention of joining the Bible thumpers and no real worries about my drinking either.
"We'll save a seat for you," Lisa had said at the time, but it never proved necessary. I got pregnant with Devon when I was twenty-four. It was easy for me to quit drinking during the pregnancy. Afterward, my alcohol consumption dropped drastically. Who can take care of an infant and continue swinging from the chandelier at the same time?
On the one hand, I knew that alcoholism was a disease, but I couldn't help wondering why Lisa couldn't cut back her consumption by herself, the way I had, by using more discipline and self-control. Sometimes, I wanted to scream when she talked endlessly about her meetings and used those little clichés: easy does it, one day at a time, live and let live.
Shut the hell up! I wanted to say. It seemed so self-indulgent that Lisa spent twenty-four hours a day dealing with addiction. It was bad enough when she had an ordinary job as an assistant at Nortel and went to meetings every night. Now that she was a bona fide alcohol and drug counselor, she was addicted to addiction—a full-time naval gazer.
And I was a disloyal bitch of a friend to think those things about her. I knew that. Tara—loyal, dependable, and resentful as hell.
Lisa was aware of my disapproval. She sensed that I wasn't thrilled with her job, and she was disappointed that I never gave the thumbs-up to Ryan, although I understood her attraction to him perfectly well.
Tall and lanky with dirty blonde hair and athletic good looks, Ryan had always been a ladies' man. He worked as a landscaper in the summer and plowed driveways in the winter, when he worked, which was not that often.
I suspected that he was a lazy bastard, who preferred to live off Lisa. They’d been living together for about six months, and I wasn’t eager to hear the latest details about their relationship.
We opened the menus, which said "Nate’s—where famous people come to eat." I’d never seen anyone famous in the restaurant, but I kept one eye open for Matthew Perry, Dan Aykroyd, and Kiefer Sutherland to stroll in. Apparently, Kiefer had gone to a Catholic boarding school in Ottawa as a teenager.
I ordered roast beef on rye with coleslaw, fries, and a dill pickle. Lisa religiously followed the Atkins diet. She requested the "Quick Burger Platter," which consisted of a cheeseburger with bacon. She wanted the coleslaw but asked the waitress to hold the potatoes. We both ordered decaffeinated coffee.
Decaf: a public announcement that we were too old to drink caffeine after dinner. We may as well have requested Maalox or Metamucil. Next, it would be the senior citizen discount. I sighed.
"Still persecuting yourself with the American Heart Association diet?" I asked Lisa, feeling the heavy weight of my thighs as I shifted my legs under the table. No wonder she was so fantastically thin, but I could never give up carbohydrates. Even if men stared at me open-mouthed, I refused to part with my rocky road ice cream.
"Works for me," Lisa retorted.
"I don't know how you can stand to live without bread and your mother's pasta. That's not to mention what that diet is doing to your arteries and your kidneys," I said.
"It's great, the food plan. Who else would let you eat an unlimited amount of cheese, steak, and bacon?" Lisa asked. "Atkins used to have a dessert of macadamia nut butter that he mixed together with whole cream."
"That probably killed him." I shook my head. "Eat up. It's your funeral."
We had this conversation routinely, and I could tell by Lisa's expression that she was tired of my ongoing lectures. Years of being a nurse and a mother had made me a nag, constantly worrying about other people's health, and righteously telling them what to do to improve it. I also had fifteen pounds to lose. Obviously, my jealousy of Lisa's appearance had reared its ugly head. I apologized hastily and changed the topic.
"Getting back to the flick," I said, “wasn't that a great line when one of Kahn's colleagues said that we all have some sort of secret to hide? Mark and I just rented a movie called Normal, which dealt with a different theme, but it was kind of similar. A couple had been happily married for twenty-five years. Then one day, the man announced that he’d been born in the wrong body. He wanted a sex change, but he didn’t want to leave the marriage. It was really well-written and starred Jessica Lange, but I can't remember who played the guy."
I thought about how attractive Lange had looked in the movie. She was old. I now defined "old" as anyone older than me. Lange had to be at least fifty or fifty-five, and she was still gorgeous. That buoyed my spirits until I remembered that I didn't remotely resemble Jessica Lange, who had undoubtedly been a knockout in her thirties.
"Kind of like Boys Don't Cry, except with a happy ending," I continued, "because eventually: the family came to accept his desire to transition. It was hard to imagine how the couple could stay together—although, of course, he was still the same person after he became a she—but it was better than watching the protagonist being gunned down like Hilary Swank."
"And what does that have to do with bigamy?" Lisa asked, as she bit into her cheeseburger.
"Both men were hiding something. Kahn deliberately deceived his wives and children—he wouldn't tell them about each other—and Lange's husband couldn't tell her his real feelings. They each had different motives, but the result was the same. The partners in their lives never really knew them.
"Are most of us like that? Does everyone have some deep, dark secret?" I waved my arms, so Lisa would know that I was including the other patrons in the restaurant.
"I've lived my whole life as an open book. What you see is what you get, or it used to be." Except for my deep-seated resentments, I thought grimly. "But with my birthday looming in the distance, suddenly, I don't know who I am anymore or what I want. I don't even know who I want, but I can't see myself growing old with Mark."
I bit a hangnail and glanced around the room. Two guys in their twenties had just sat down at the table across from us. The Asian woman with them was talking about Tibet, the Dalai Lama's upcoming visit to Ottawa, and whether Prime Minister Paul Martin would agree to meet with him. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, was as popular culturally as a rock star. The trio was arguing over how the Dalai Lama could refer to himself as solely a spiritual leader, without any political affiliations, when he had spent his entire life in exile, working for the independence of Tibet.
"It’s an outrage. Almost 1.2 million Tibetans have died from starvation, imprisonment, or murder since the Chinese took over. Surely, that constitutes genocide: but the United States, the world's self-appointed policeman, does nothing to stop the slaughter," the woman declared.
"The States turns the other cheek so that they can maintain their billion-dollar trading relationship with China," her companion replied. He was wearing a yellow baseball cap on backward, a dark blue, short-sleeved shirt, and large baggy pants with balloon figures on them.
The background music by Alanis Morissette suddenly stopped. Melanie Doane was now crooning, "You leave a lot to be desired."
"Speaking of Mark, this song could have been written for him," I said, returning my attention to Lisa.
"Could’ve been written for any man," Lisa said. "Don't be crazy, Tara! You're still an open book. You're as transparent as pantyhose: the same today as you were in university.